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Covid-19: Still No Sign of Lockdown for Sweden

BLOG - 3 April 2020

This article was updated on April 10.

 

Unlike most countries in the world, Sweden has no lockdown approach to Covid-19. Since March 24th, people can no longer be served at the counter in cafés and restaurants as usual – service is provided directly at the table and tables are separated by some distance. Ski resorts remain open, but cable cars are closed. These arrangements may seem minor, as they are not at all in line with what is happening elsewhere in the world. How come?

What is the situation in Sweden?

On April 9th, Sweden had 9,141 reported cases of Covid-19 patients, 719 people in intensive care and 793 deaths.

68% of those presenting symptoms are over 50 years old. 55% of the deceased were older than 80 years old.

By way of comparison, Denmark and Norway, two neighbouring countries and both in lockdown, recorded 5,635 and 6,142 reported cases of illness, and 237 and 105 deaths respectively. We are starting to see shifts in the dynamics of contamination in these three countries, which have adopted different strategies.

As elsewhere, cases in Sweden are increasing daily. Up-to-date figures are continuously released by the Swedish National Public Health Authority on its website.

How are the population and the State reacting to the crisis?

To the astonishment of European neighbours who, for some, have been paralysed for several weeks now, Sweden is operating "normally" for the most part - notwithstanding a few additional precautionary measures announced by the government. Even the Netherlands, whose population isn’t under lockdown either, has adopted stricter measures, including schools and restaurants’ closures and a ban on gatherings.

In Sweden, schools from kindergarten to primary, and even lower secondary, remain open while high schools and universities are now closed. Major summer concerts, such as the musician Håkan Hellström’s tour, are now being postponed at the request of epidemiologists in the Swedish press. For now, gatherings can continue provided they are limited to 50 people which means restaurants remain open, although this is less and less the case for bars. Citizens aged 70 or over are encouraged to stay at home, but everyone else may go out, provided they avoid unnecessary travel. This includes the Easter holidays of course, for which Swedes are encouraged to stay where they are, but remain free to choose for themselves what seems best. The Minister of Social Affairs said publicly on April 7 that during this festive period, isolated people should not "have to feel needlessly alone".

Radio stations broadcast prevention messages to wash hands frequently and to avoid touching one's face. The watchword: be careful.

Radio stations broadcast prevention messages to wash hands frequently and to avoid touching one's face. People are expected to be patient and to think of the crisis as a "marathon" rather than a "sprint," as advised by Isabela Lövin, Deputy Prime Minister. The watchword: be careful. And also, "behave like adults" but above all else "don’t panic", in the words of the Prime Minister himself, Mr. Löfven, member of the Social Democratic Workers Party. It seems to be all a matter of "trust", of which Swedes are very capable, as is put into focus in an analysis by Foreign Policy.

In an official televised statement on March 22nd, at the beginning of the crisis, Mr. Löfven expressed his awareness of Swedes’ concerns, "worried about how society will manage; worried for themselves, for their loved ones at risk, or for their jobs". He said that in his eyes, the country's economy is just as important as the health of its citizens. He called on Swedes to favour local businesses. Several national influencers, including Sweden's number one blogger Kenza, have since started to encourage their compatriots to do so.

On April 7, at a press conference, the Prime Minister announced new regulatory measures which would allow Parliament to speed up an exceptional process of putting in place more stringent rules. This set of measures, which are not in effect, will be considered "in the event of a worsening of the crisis". The intention is to prepare the country to act quickly if necessary, without circumventing the vote of the Parliament. The examples shared by the government are, at this stage, that it could ban gatherings of less than 50 people, close the ports and certain shops or even shut down the public transport system.

Meanwhile, Norwegians and Danes have made much heavier lockdown choices for their populations. What explains this Swedish exception in Scandinavia?

Some claim that the government has chosen to induce herd immunity, alike strategies previously adopted by the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. Since, both countries followed in the footsteps of other European countries by introducing much stricter measures.

Some claim that the government has chosen to bet on herd immunity.

According to this theory, explained by Claude Le Pen in a post for Institut Montaigne, a sufficiently large share of the population would have to be contaminated by the virus to make the entire population immune to the pandemic – until a vaccine exists, immunity comes through the contraction of the disease. This strategy, which raises many ethical issues and concerns, is not formally embraced. Indeed, there has been no official statement from the Swedish executive, contrary to Boris Johnson’s official statement in the UK a couple of weeks ago.

For one of Sweden's most publicized epidemiologists, Anders Tegnell, there is no evidence that a strategy of herd immunity has been adopted by the government. Interviewed by the national media outlet Svenska Dagbladet, he rules out the possibility of the government adopting this strategy: according to him, the government is instead looking at ways to curb the curve as much as possible, so as to limit the number of cases reported simultaneously and thus preserve the capacity of the health system to respond to the health crisis. What we understand from this is that chaos is not yet felt and is not predicted to occur in the future. One of Sweden's assets in the face of the pandemic is a low population density, which may help limit the spread of the virus. With 25 people per square kilometre, compared to 120 in France or 206 in Italy, Sweden is one of the countries with the lowest population density in Europe. And Stockholm, by far the densest city in the country, has half as many people per square kilometre as New York does, and four times fewer than Paris.

Nonetheless, as an article on the Swedish case published in Le Monde points out, experts are far from reaching consensus. Many remind that Swedish hospitals were already under pressure before the onset of the Coronavirus, with 2.4 beds per 1,000 inhabitants and a total of 526 beds in intensive care, the lowest figure among OECD countries.

Beyond the debate among experts, political parties have responded to this decision. While media outlets are being increasingly alarmist, political parties in the opposition have not tried to take advantage of the situation. A recent article in the southern regional newspaper Sydsvenskan, for example, gives a platform to the Christian Democrat Ebba Busch, who tries to make sense of  the government's choices on the basis of scientific explanations. And on the Sweden Democrats’ side, the atmosphere is particularly calm. The leader of this far-right party, Jimmie Åkesson, has not taken the opportunity to criticise the minority coalition government formed by the Social Democrats and the Greens (a right-wing alliance had been discarded after months of discussions between centrists and liberals despite Sweden Democrats’ breakthrough in the 2018 parliamentary elections, where no majority could be secured by any of the traditional blocs). On the contrary, Mr. Åkesson explained in the centre-right tabloid Expressen that realistic economic measures needed to be considered before insisting about their urgency on television, while in the end admitting that all politicians pretty much agreed that a consensus had to be reached.

In any case, people from abroad seem to worry about Sweden. British newspaper The Guardian drew attention to this concern headlining an article on the topic with the expression "Russian roulette", an idea used by some experts to describe the risk taken by Sweden. The next few days will tell whether the government and the experts it relies on are just buying time, or whether Sweden has actually decided to write a very different story from the rest of the world.

 

Copyright : Anders WIKLUND / TT NEWS AGENCY / AFP

 

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